As a native Californian, I was excited when I moved to Birmingham in November 1999. From all appearances, the Magic City had nothing but an upside. How could a place with three fouryear colleges, including a major medical school; thriving nightlife; a burgeoning food scene; and a great music tradition be anything but exciting and ready to burst at the seams?
The mayoral election was in full swing and, based on what little I knew of local politics, that also seemed interesting. Long-time Mayor Richard Arrington was stepping down, and the talk around town was that it was time for a change. William Bell was Arrington’s heir apparent, and Bernard Kincaid was the upstart who promised to make major changes at City Hall.
Those of us who have lived in Birmingham for the past decade know how this story turned out. Bell was soundly defeated, even though his campaign war chest far exceeded Kincaid’s. Kincaid served for eight years and was then soundly defeated by Larry Langford. Langford’s term ended in a federal prison sentence, leaving behind historic financial woes and political chicanery that marked a miserable chapter in the history of Birmingham.
What I’ve learned, many who have lived here much longer already knew. Birmingham is a place of perpetual promise that never seems to fulfill that promise, at least in part because of a difficult racial history and a lack of cooperation between the city and the county, the city and the state, and the city and its surrounding municipalities.
I first met William Bell a few years after his 1999 defeat. He was the councilor for District 5, a seat he had recently won from Elias Hendricks. When Bell won that election, some believed that Birmingham was going backwards, or at least back to the way it was under Arrington.
I knew nothing of Bell, except for hearing him speak at political forums. I had been told that he was distant, arrogant and bitter about his defeat in 1999. However, the man I met seemed to be nothing like that, but rather considerate, thoughtful and straightforward.
In 1999, Birmingham was ready for change.
The same is true today. Will Bell be the mayor who can help Birmingham fulfill its promise?
Since my initial meeting with Bell, I have discussed the city with him on a few occasions. This interview, conducted at his office at City Hall, was the most recent.
We discussed several topics, including downtown revitalization, his plans for the BJCC, mass transit and the need to attract new jobs and businesses to Birmingham. You will find the full-length Q&A at www.bhamweekly.com.
Birmingham Weekly: Obviously, the economy has its effects, but building up downtown with more retail, restaurants, small businesses—how do you see that occurring?
Bell: Well, while the economy is down, it gives us an opportunity to plan how we want to proceed once the economy picks up. To that end we’ve had discussions with a number of developers. You’re aware of the Pizitz development—they’ll have a number of shops and businesses on the ground level that will attract more people to the downtown area, in addition to the offices above there. In conjunction with that, the city itself will do a lot of streetscaping and improving accessibility in that corridor, along with First Avenue, Second Avenue and Third Avenue. Part of the money that we are receiving through the recovery zone bond activity will go towards that project. So, we have the plans in place, and pretty soon we’ll have the money in place, and then the activities will take place, to get it constructed.
BW: The downtown condo development stopped when the recession hit, but it seems that downtown just continues to poke along, regardless of the economy or the government. There’s a pent-up interest by people to be in the city center.
B: We had to break through that barrier about 12 to 15 years ago, that people thought it was unsafe to be downtown. There weren’t any real places to live downtown, so you had nothing to show. I remember when we started discussing building lofts in the downtown area, and the very first project that I worked on was called the Wooster Lofts, along First Avenue. We had all sorts of letters to the editor saying we’re crazy, no one’s going to move downtown, and so on. And, not listening to the critics, we moved forward with development of the Wooster Lofts, and that gave people a sense that you could live downtown. We had to change a number of our zoning laws to allow people to live above business areas, and because of that, it opened up the downtown market for residential living. That then began to attract other amenities for people to, excuse the expression, feed off of. We had a number of new restaurants coming to the downtown area. It hasn’t reached that point where we have the critical mass to say that it’ll take care of itself. We still have to do the streetscaping and support our activities for it, but I think we’re on our way, even though the economy has slowed up the residential activity. It gives us an opportunity to look at a plan for some other things that we can put into place once the economy turns around.“It’s important for us to create our own identity and chart our own course.”
BW: How do you get people, especially conventioneers, to go from an entertainment district near the BJCC and venture into downtown, which is disconnected from it?
B: It’s a little, isolated desert area the way it’s structured right now, so we’re trying to bring more restaurants, stores and shops to that area, and not just for conventions. We built two or three new buildings over there—the FBI, the ATF. We’ve got plans to attract some more buildings to that area, but the questions developers ask us are “Where are people going to eat? Where are they going to shop? Where are the amenities that are needed for the area?” That’s where we’re hoping to begin with the entertainment and marketplace district that we’re talking about.
BW: You have a new plan regarding a hotel near the BJCC, but again, as far as connecting people to the other entertainment districts, such as Five Points South, Lakeview, downtown itself, that discussion comes back to transportation. What do you see in the future for Birmingham mass transit.
B: Well, people associate the solution to the problem of mass transit with the city of Birmingham, when in reality the solution lies within the State of Alabama. The primary restriction has been the Alabama constitution, which will not allow highway dollars to be spent on mass transportation. It can only be spent on roads and bridges, and each time we’ve attempted to get state legislation to tap into that or change the constitution, we’ve been derailed by the lobbying group that represents the road and bridge builders. I have tried to reach out to that organization and the individuals within it to let them understand that while they’re trying to be protective of this small pile, there’s a larger pile of hundreds of millions of dollars at the federal level, that we could bring down to work on our mass transit issues. They would be the recipients of the bulk of those funds because you would have to build designated lanes for buses. If you’re talking about light rail, you’re going to need bridges and light rail infrastructures being put in place, and they’re the ones who would take advantage of that, so we’re trying to get them to see the bigger picture. Yes, we know that you’re protective of this fund, but we’re talking about a much bigger picture. I think it’s my role to reach out to that group and get them to understand it’s in their all-around best interest. The other thing is the proposal tomexpand the [Highway] 280 corridor with the elevated highway system. Light rail should be a component in the development of that area, because if you don’t, 10 to 12 years from now you’re gonna be faced with the same problem. You’ve got to have a way to move large parties of people without congestion in our roadways. That also affects the environmental quality that passes. You could take cars off the road, which will help our ozone emissions and everything else that we currently have to deal with. One of my roles is to constantly be bringing that to the forefront of every discussion that we have about economic development, about alleviating traffic, about all of these issues. I try to find a component to bring mass transportation into the picture, and at least keep it on the table. Now, we have not been able to get a firm commitment, but in talking with the governor, he’s not opposed to it, but he hasn’t given the instruction to the highway department to take a look at the dollar cost of adding highspeed rail or other alternative methods we can use to bring federal dollars in here.
BW: There’s been a lot of talk about “greening” Birmingham, and there’s an idea to set up mass transit in a way that allows for villagestyle developments around the stops on thetransit lines. My understanding is that some groups are working with the federal government to make that happen.
B: Yes, for the past several years—I think about five or six years—we’ve been working on what we call the In-Town Transit Partnership Plan. It looks at areas that can be impacted by having mass transit within a designated area, and making sure that it is first-class, clean transportation. We applied for a Tiger Grant for funding for that project, but we were not able to get it. The only project that was funded here in this area was a rail yard in McCalla, but in talking with Vice-President Joe Biden a couple of weeks ago, he indicated that there would be a second round of Tiger Grants that would happen, as well as some other federal loan programs that could assist us in developing the ITP, the In-Town Partnership program, which would accomplish the goal of looking at what areas could be positively impacted to become economic centers, with an increase in transportation opportunities in those areas.
BW: And that’s part of recruiting business for the city?
B: Yes, oftentimes people don’t understand the relationship between the transit system and economic development. If you look at the Northeast corridor—for several years I was involved with some programs and projects up in Maryland, and they took an area that was blighted, depressed [and] built a metro station in that area. You come back two years later and there are high-rise buildings, condominiums, offices. It’s very simple. If you go back to the early history of the United States, when Lewis and Clark set out on their expedition, well, they cut paths, and those paths became roadbeds, and those roadbeds became highways and those highways became ways for people to travel into other areas and build economic centers. Well, it hasn’t changed. It’s still the same thing today, and we’ve got to understand that and do our planning around, “How do you get from here to there, and once you get there, what will you have there?” So, you know, it’s basic.
BW: As a local businessperson with my office in the city, I wasn’t happy when my license fees were doubled, and another seemingly regressive one-cent tax was instituted, by the prior administration. Does this hamper people in coming to Birmingham? Should we do away with these taxes?
B: In terms of doing away with it—I understand the city’s in a tough financial situation. If we did away with it we would have to do away with services, and it’s those services that attract people to come to the downtown area. When you look at police and fire support for the area, when you look at keeping the streets clean—all of that has a cost, and when you look at surrounding municipalities, they’re faced with the same issues. They’ve got to find funding resources. I never liked to just willy-nilly jump into the process of passing a business license tax or sales tax because I understand it takes money out of people’s pockets, but then you have to look at, well, how are you going to continue to provide those services? Right now, we’re faced with a 10 percent cutback on employees’ salaries. We could have gone in the other direction and said, “Well, we’re just going to lay people off,” but when you lay people off you reduce those services. People still want their garbage picked up, they still want someone to be there when they dial 911. So, as the elected official responsible for delivering those services, I have to make sure that we have the financial support to deal with that. I recognize that the business community looks at, “What’s the cost for me to do business in a given area?” I would hope that they value the service that they receive, and if they don’t value that service then I need to go back and evaluate how we can make that service better with the resources that we have.
BW: The answer, of course, is more business activity and a larger tax base.
B: Right, but it’s a “chicken or egg” situation.
What do you get if you reduce sales and business license tax now? You’re going to be taking a step back. I understand that would, in some cases, make it more attractive for people to come into an area because of lower taxes, but that’s not the only factor that people look at. They look at the delivery services. They want the streets paved. I get more positive comments from people who say, “Hey, they’re paving my street.” You go up on the Southside and look at the number of streets that have been paved. They want that, they like that, but those very same people might come back and say, “Yeah, but I don’t wanna pay that one cent sales tax.” Well, no one’s gonna ride in here on a white horse and say, “Okay, your streets are paved for free.” Somebody has to pay for it.
BW: As far as recruiting business, how do we compete with Hoover, and how do we bring Hoover and other municipalities into the process?
B: You mean how do we compete with a city that has an $84 million dollar operating budget, compared with our $348 million dollar budget? I don’t even worry about them. I really don’t. Hoover does not compare to the city of Birmingham when you talk about the infrastructure support. If Birmingham sneezed, Hoover would dry up on the vine. If Birmingham turns it’s light out, Hoover would be in the dark ages. So, I don’t even worry about competing with Hoover. What I look at is how we can work together to strengthen the entire region. I think that attitude that we’ve had in the past—oh, we’re worried about Hoover—I don’t even concern myself with that. I’m very supportive of the things that Mayor Petelos is trying to do. I wish him well in anything I can do to help him, and I would hope that he feels the same way about Birmingham, because it’s not that we are competing with each other. Birmingham is competing with Tokyo, Osaka, Stuttgart, small cities in Europe with manufacturing facilities—you know, the global market has shrunk competition to where we’re competing with cities and towns all over the world, so I wouldn’t get bogged down with competing against Hoover. The question is how can we strengthen ourselves to compete with the rest of the world? That’s what I’m interested in.
BW: Is there a movement to build a new stadium downtown and get the Barons back here?
B: You know, I’ve always looked at the Birmingham Barons situation as something that’s positive for our area. Whether it’s in Hoover or in Birmingham, they bring a certain vibe to the area, and if they’re interested in coming to Birmingham, I’m more than interested in entertaining the discussion. What I’m not interested in is getting into a bidding war with Hoover, or creating animosity with the city of Hoover, or with the Birmingham Barons. I think what we have to do is look at what’s in the best interest of the region. Is it better for the Barons to be in the core of the city where they can draw on the corporate community for support, or is it better for them to be in Hoover, basically surrounded by a residential area? That’s something that the three entities—Hoover, the Barons, and the City of Birmingham—have to look at and then make the decision. I’m sure the ownership of the Barons will look at what’s in their best financial interest, because they’re not a social organization, they’re looking to make money and be in the best position to attract people to the area. So, we all have different interests that we have to resolve, but at the end of the day, what’s in the best interest of the region?
BW: When I came from California, I had no idea what Birmingham looked like. And when I first saw the city, I thought this place had potential, that Birmingham could avoid the mistakes a lot of other cities had made and become a leader—in civil rights, in human rights, in all the things a modern city can be.
B: And now we have the opportunity to become a leader in the green initiative that’s taken hold throughout the country. Birmingham has been blessed by having a geographical location that no other city can compare to. We not only sit in the heart of Alabama, but we sit in the heart of the Southeastern region, and you can touch all of those cities from Birmingham in a shorter time than any other place could. So because of our locale we can capitalize on this green movement and that’s one of our goals to do exactly that, to become a leader, not a follower in that area.
BW: Over the next five years, where do you hope to see Birmingham go?
B: Well, my goal is to change Birmingham’s national and international image. You know, we have had a civil rights history, and oftentimes that clouds any other activities that we do. I don’t try to deny our civil rights history because I’m a part of that history, I’m a product of that history, I’m a beneficiary of that history, but by the same token, it has limited our ability to get people to see that we are a major city in the Southeast. We do have a major institution in UAB that produces fine scientists, and scientific technology comes out of there every day which we can market to the rest of the world. It is my goal as mayor to create that new, national identity, not denying our civil rights past, but showing that we’re a modern, thriving vibrant city that’s not out to just copycat other cities, but to create our own unique identity and our own unique footprint. I tell people all the time that back in the ‘80s we were so busy trying to be Atlanta that Atlanta moved on to become something else totally different, and by the time we get to where Atlanta is today, Atlanta will be somewhere else altogether. It’s important for us to create our own identity and chart our own course, and create that national and international identity that will attract businesses to this area. We’re talking with Korean companies, with German companies, with companies from all around the world who oftentimes wouldn’t think of Birmingham. They’d think of Atlanta, Chicago, New York, L.A., and in recent times Houston and Dallas. My goal is to try to become the next great Southern city by attracting those international companies.
Chuck Leishman is the publisher of Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.